I’ve been studying Japanese tea ceremony for a little over a year now. The way you learn is by watching people who are better than you, trying to imitate them, and then receiving corrections from your teacher.
There are dozens of types of tea ceremony, but the simple ones you do as a beginner last for about 15-25 minutes, depending on how many guests you have and how quick you are. In that time you perform dozens of steps, and most of those steps have a lot of nuance to them, so you may have gotten a certain amount of water from one container to another, but you may have done it all wrong.
In that way, it reminds me a lot of ballet. There is a precisely correct way of doing everything, and even if you do it for years there is still room for improvement on even the most rudimentary movements.
At first I thought that I was great at it, because I received very few corrections. Then as I got better I realized that teachers usually only correct a couple of the biggest mistakes so that you have something to focus on. Like so many other subjects, you constantly realize just how incompetent you were just a few weeks ago.
The biggest hurdle to learning it is that it’s difficult to get a lot of practice in. Classes are usually 2-4 hours and you typically do one ceremony in that time. I’ve done two maybe once or twice. When you’re doing your ceremony there is some element of performance, since you’re trying to make a nice bowl of tea for the other students, so your inclination is to cover up mistakes and never pause or redo things. It’s often impossible to redo things anyway, as many moves are irreversible (for example, adding water to the tea).
Classes are also hard to come by, at least in the US. Class meets 3x per week in Hawaii (though almost everyone only goes once per week), and once per week in Vegas. My friend Todd moved to Japan and started a class that meets three times a week. In the span of a month or so he went from being about one month behind me to being so far ahead of me that I can’t really estimate how long he would have to stop for me to catch up.
Tea ceremony requires at least 12 different items to perform, but over time I collected all of them, including a big antique iron pot. I was excited that I could finally practice at home, until I realized that the iron pot rusts very easily and is annoying to care for, and that since I only drink one serving of tea per day I would either have to only drink matcha or I’d have to waste tea and just pour it out. I thought about buying really crappy matcha and doing that.
Ten days ago I had an idea that now seems so incredibly obvious, but at the time felt like a genius idea. Why bother with tea? I could just practice without tea or water and just pretend they are there.
For four days I practiced once or twice each day with no water, no tea, and and empty kettle. If I did something wrong, I rewound several steps and redid it properly. After each session I watched a video of someone doing it properly and made notes on what I did wrong. Then the next time I would read my notes and try to do better. It felt as though I got at least “one month” better in those few days. I decided to go to class without telling my teacher I had practiced and see if she noticed.
My plan was slightly foiled by us doing a special ceremony that was new to everyone, but I went second to last and it was similar to the one that I had been practicing. After I finished the teacher said, with some level of shock, “Tynan, your tea ceremony looked… really good…”.
This whole experience may seem like nothing, but it was a big reminder to me that, even as someone who basically does everything his own way, it’s good to be vigilant and make sure that you’re doing things the best way, not just the way everyone else is doing them. By simply examining how I was learning tea ceremony, I believe I’ve cut my learning time (in months/years) down by at least 75-80%. I can now teach myself the basics and only use the valuable time with a teacher to correct the things I can’t teach myself.
How do you learn best? How do you work best? What in your life isn’t going as well or as quickly as you think it is? Maybe there’s some way to speed it up. And now I’m off to whisk a bowl of imaginary tea in preparation for class tomorrow.
Look! A relevant image that isn’t of Lake Mead. It’s been a long time. The picture is my little 2 mat tea room in my house in Vegas. The paper has some dialogue on it so that I can practice and check if I’m right.
Thanks to everyone who has supported my Patreon so far! It really does make me more motivated to write.